THE BLOG

When Hacking Is Actually a Good Thing: The Civic Hacking Movement

08/05/2013 02:43 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2013

Many people think of the word "hacking" in a pejorative sense, understanding it to mean malicious acts of breaking into secure systems and wreaking havoc with private information. Popular culture likes to propagate a particular image of the hacker: a fringe-type individual with highly specialized technical skills who does what he or she does out of malice and/or greed. And so to many of us the concept of "civic hacking" may seem like an oxymoron, for how can the word "civic," defined by its associations with municipal government and citizen concerns, be linked to the activity of hacking? Here is where another definition of hacking comes in--one that is more commonly used by denizens of the information technology industries--basically, the process of fixing a problem. As Jake Levitas defined it on the Code for America blog, civic hacking is "people working together quickly and creatively to make their cities better for everyone." Moreover, as Levitas points out, civic hacking does not necessarily involve computer expertise or specialized technical knowledge; rather, it is a collective effort made up of people who want to make things better for themselves and each other, whether it be an ordinary citizen or a programming prodigy.

So how does it work? Not too long ago, ordinary citizens would report problems they spotted in their communities to their local governments via phone or snail mail, which, suffice it to say, was not terribly efficient at resolving those problems. But, as web 2.0 has multiplied the possibilities for social connectivity and crowdsourcing, so it has also increased the opportunities for collaboration between governments and their constituencies. To take a few examples, cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and San Francisco have held civic "hackathons," asking citizens to create tools for facilitating the change they want to see in their communities. The hackathons resulted in web and mobile applications -- spanning social media, crowdsourcing, and cloud computing -- that these cities continue to successfully use. This past June saw the first National Day of Civic Hacking, when 91 civic hackathons were held around the United States, bringing together developers, designers, artists, urban planners and interested citizens. These folks used open data sets made available by their governments to design useful web or mobile applications for citizens, businesses and local government agencies, with the larger purpose of improving communication, transparency and accessibility along these channels. The fruits of these collective labors point towards civic hacking as a vibrant social movement that is already taking off as we speak.

Philly 311 Widget Contest sparks new ideas for improving city life

Philadelphia entered the civic hacking movement when it launched its mobile 311 service, Philly311 in October 2012 to improve the efficiency of their existing 311 call center and provide a channel for citizens to communicate with City Hall. The app, supported via web, mobile, SMS and voice call, offers users options to submit a service request, look up nearby requests posted by other citizens, receive updates on city news and announcements, and contact city administration. So far, there have been over 12,000 requests submitted with a 90 percent close rate. The Philly311 app was even used to combat the dire situation brought on by Superstorm Sandy in November 2012, and was the 33rd most downloaded app in the country that week.

Philly expanded its civic hacking activities when it wisely realized that tapping into its residents for ideas could prove beneficial and expose more citizens to their open government efforts. They held the week-long Philly311 Widget Contest and offered workshops and meetup opportunities with their civic hacking partners, Code for America (Philadelphia) and Random Hacks of Kindness. In addition to the city's publicly available APIs at opendataphilly.org and phlapi.com, PublicStuff provided a variety of civic APIs including its own version on the PublicStuff Civic Developer Platform.To open up the contest to the widest possible audience, the city pushed for widgets built by coders and software engineers, while residents and activists with no coding experience were able to submit their ideas as well. The winning submission of the Philly311 Widget Contest provides a service that any parent or guardian can appreciate: it aggregates and provides information about activities for K-12 children when school is not in session, ranging from after-school activities to summer camp and day care. This widget's creator -- and the contest judges -- definitely understand the value of something that saves parents from scouring the Internet each year to find their kids something to do in the summer.

Unlocking the talent of civic hackers, developers and ordinary citizens has proved fruitful for Philadelphia as it strives to provide better information and services to the city's residents. With cities like it, including Chicago, San Francisco and other urban pioneers setting the bar high, it is now high time for more cities across the country to ask their best and brightest for new solutions to usher us all into the era of gov 2.0.